Paris Is Burning (1990)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5

USA/, 1990. , , , , , , , , , , . Cinematography by . Produced by Jennie Livingston. Music by . Film Editing by .

This passionate, endlessly entertaining documentary took audiences and critics by storm when it was first released, and none of its charm has worn off since. Long before the mainstream acceptance of drag on RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Ryan Murphy series Pose, which took much of its story and character ideas from this film, director Jennie Livingston turned her cameras on drag queens competing at their annual ball for a highly coveted crown. Hostess leads us through the various pageant categories that include runway model style and “banjee realness” (judging their talent for passing for straight), the contestants bringing the intensity and skill of professional athletes at an international tournament. The pageant footage is just the jumping off point for the narrative, as Livingston explores this community and its culture, interviewing participants about their hopes and dreams which include their desire to have gender confirmation surgery, their plans to conquer the world as supermodels or just to win the crown. We are given lessons in many of the terms that, at the time, had yet to make their way into popular vernacular including “shading” and “reading”, and hear from both Dupree and Dorian Corey as elder stateswomen giving us the lowdown of how things have changed from their day until now (spoiler alert, they’re not optimistic). In a mere 75 minutes that fly by, Livingston expertly assembles all this information in a non-linear fashion that feels like an organized and astute collage and never loses its pace or forward momentum. The footage within and outside of the ball pays tribute to the joyful dedication of these usually marginalized individuals who find community, acceptance and a chance to really challenge themselves in this world, but does not ignore the dark and dangerous vulnerability of their reality either (including a member of the cast who was tragically murdered before the film was completed). For all that it moves so quickly through its information, Livingston still allows us to get to know the figures we meet and invest a great deal of affection in them, allowing us to be grateful for their generosity in making us feel welcome in their dazzling world.

The Criterion Collection:  #1018

Toronto International Film Festival: 1990

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